It was a lonely graveyard, and anything but little. One could get lost not only in its misty endlessness, but also the sea of undead emotions that seeped from the ground like rain falling in reverse. There were countless sleeping souls tucked under the rigid blanket of earth. Each gravestone, a cold pillow for those lying in rest, had its own story. Some of those stories were illustrated with pictures left behind, pictures or other trinkets. Flowers were also abundant around the gravestones, each one a silent sentinel in the gloom.
"…Do you need a moment?"
I needed more than a moment, I needed a bouquet of moments. But I didn't tell him that, he thought I was getting better. So I just nodded, not turning my face from the silent little stone that sat in the ground in front of me. It was small enough to trip over, rising no higher than my ankles, and the face staring straight up at the sky, waiting for the rain to cry down upon it. The marker was a mere pebble compared to some of its neighbors, but pebbles can fell giants.
The muffled crunch of leaves under footfalls, and then the churning of shoes on gravel retreated from me.
There was one flower reclining at the base of the headstone. Anyone else would have seen the rose, the delicate primrose, as a symbol of love. Tragic love, to be more accurate.
But not to me. The carnation was a promise. A dead promise, a lie.
It was a promise of a forever that would never come to pass.
The small and beautiful tombstone is what I pictured my heart to be; cold and dull, with one name carved into it until oblivion erodes it away.
Anna Sophia Chilcote, the name of my daughter came to be, only to un-be three forever-days later.
The worst kind of lie anyone can tell you, is one that nobody can speak. But they can promise you a future that is bright and full of smiles and laughter, and then snatch it away in one last breath, and it is devastating.
Nine minutes until detonation.
Thomas Mitchell’s breath came in panting, gasping bursts. His converse shoes slapped against the hard metal of the floor, ringing out a metallic one-two-one-two rhythm as he sprinted down the hallway. God, please, oh God, please please please, he thought. God I swear if I make it out of here I’ll pull double duty volunteering, I’ll sell all my stuff and move to Africa and be a missionary or something, God please don’t let me die.
If God heard him, He made no indication. Sweat soaked through a t-shirt that was already sopping wet. It was his birthday! He was supposed to be having cake and presents, not – not whatever this was!
Eight minutes until detonation.
Kidnapped – kidnapped. Woke up, turned on the oven, looked down just in time to see the can, some sort of gas already escaping from it. Woke up again God knows where, nothing but the clothes on his back and a letter in his hand.
“Your goal is to escape this place. Fail, and you may use your imagination.”
And then tunnels and bulkheads and machinery and locked doors and – oh God, who even made a place like this? What kind of psychopath puts together a place like this?
Six minutes until detonation.
He skidded to a stop at an intersection. Without thinking, he dashed left. In his hand he clutched a keycard emblazoned with the image of a flame.
“Seek a way out”, the letter said. “Seek a card that carries a flame.”
He was running on pure adrenaline now. He had no idea how long he’d been imprisoned there, how many hours he’d spent wandering the halls. He’d found the card entered into a console, plucked it out, and looked over to see a bright green message declaring that there were now ten minutes until detonation. Why? God, why would anyone even put a bomb in a place like this? This was insane.
Three minutes until detonation.
A ladder! Desperately, he threw himself at it and started clawing his way up, gasping and praying. Pulling himself over the top, he found himself in yet another long hallway.
And there – at the end – a door. A door with an image of a flame on it. He lunged forward.
One minute until detonation.
The reader. Fast. No time. He slammed the card through. Nothing.
Thirty seconds until detonation.
No! Again. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Nine seconds until detonation.
Something. A light blinked on. The door slid open, and Thomas flung himself through. It slammed shut behind him as he collapsed.
The toe of someone’s boot poked the side of his head. “Hey, Tom-Tom, get up.”
Thomas looked up to see Annie’s face smiling down at him. “Ann…?” he asked, uncomprehending.
“Wakey wakey. Did you like my little maze?”
His mouth hung open. “Why…? God, why?”
Annie pouted for a sec. “You always said you wanted to do something exciting for your birthday sometime. So I put together my little show.” She smiled. “Don’t worry, none of it was real. But I figure it was more exciting than she was. Was it? I hope so.”
She nudged him again. “Cake’s on the table when you can move. Along with the divorce papers. Sorry there’s no candles; I figure the card’ll do. Happy birthday.”
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
“I told you, I didn’t kill him.”
“Whether you did or not is irrelevant. You provided his location to someone. We want to know how.”
Her eyes are sharp. They pierce my forehead like twin daggers, sharpened to near-perfection. I ignore the clear attempt at intimidation and instead smile pleasantly, an action which only irks her the more.
She stands up and turns cogently from me, fingers laced behind her back; her dark uniform glimmers under the low, artificial lights of the interrogation cell. I watch her carefully, wondering what she plans to do to me. I’ve heard the stories about the new Worldwide Intelligence Agency, how it tortures its prisoners into submission without a care for mercy, how it will stop at nothing to attain information. That’s what the world runs on nowadays: information, pure and simple.
I lick my teeth. She’s still facing away from me, her shoulders rising and falling with each breath. My boots are sprawled before me on the cold concrete floor. Idly, I wonder how far underground I am.
For lack of anything better to do, I examine the folds in the back of her clothing. She spins on her toes before I can count them all, stepping to me and leaning across the table between us so her face is inches from mine.
“Tell us the codes you used to track our agent’s location.”
“I used no codes.”
“We tracked the access point to your very connection. Don’t pretend you have any secrets you can hide from us, Mr. Kohls.”
I shrug nonchalantly. “I dunno. Maybe I do.”
“We’ll find out soon enough.” She makes an irritated gesture with her right hand. Behind the far window, a soldier on duty nods and begins pressing buttons. Her gaze is intense and somewhat pretty. I wonder how I look to her. Is my hair too messy?
“I never got your name,” I say.
She leans back on her heels, repulsed, and says nothing.
A minute passes in silence. Another slips by in the same fashion, and still the soldier is typing on his keyboard.
Suddenly he turns and yells — I can’t hear his volume through the soundproof glass, I can only see his mouth open wide with effort. Another man approaches the computer terminal and alternately points at the display and types into the keyboard himself.
The woman before me looks annoyed. I smile. Her responsive frown radiates both disapproval and pretention. I’m no more than scum in her eyes.
I’m devilishly intelligent scum, though.
My smile widens when the first soldier knocks on the door. The female officer lifts a finger to silence me and crosses rapidly to the door, closing it smartly behind her. Now I can see her conversing with the other two soldiers, her gesticulations steadily growing angrier and angrier as time passes.
Before I know it, she’s in the doorway again. “Kohls—”
I’ve practiced my poor-little-me look for months. The rehearsal is wasted on her.
She points to me, and the two soldiers I watched through the window run past her, grab my arms, and practically drag me out into the dark hallway. I bite down a quip about my shoes being messed up by trailing on the concrete.
“Explain this,” she demands, pointing to the display.
I examine it and fake a confused pout, shrugging for emphasis in case they don’t buy it.
They still don’t. Her eyes are burning now, not like daggers but like brands, singeing my raised eyebrows. “We want to know how you hid your IP address,” she says.
The confused pout is still on my face.
She seems to be fighting the urge to spit on me. “What IP masking codes did you use?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know how to use any,” I say matter-of-factly; “they’re illegal.”
I’m smiling behind my façade of innocence. Thank goodness she can’t see that.
Her lower lip twists. “Take him back to the cell,” she mutters. I catch the surrender in her tone and gladly allow the soldiers from before to escort me back to my prison room.
In a few weeks, I’ll be free. Innocent until proven guilty.
Oh, my dear, what are we to do with you?
I can hear your words slithering into my ears right now, your vicious, forked tongue spewing out poison and deceit as you try and convince me that I’m wrong, that I’m seeing things. My eyes are messed up, you say. All the better to see you with, says I. I know full well what I saw, and I know that you are the last person on earth to tell me that what I’m doing is wrong.
You and I are standing in the parking lot of the Starbucks on the corner beside Five Guys. You know, right down the street where the Hot Topic sits, that street that you and all your friends go to when you need some time away from your “boy toys?” The place where you’ve come every Wednesday night for the last two months to meet up with that cute everything-blonde cashier with the Bieber haircut and the green eyes that sparkle like leaves just before they take a jackknife off their branches and fall towards the grass, trying to escape autumn’s ever-approaching tendrils. Right now, I would be only too happy to take a jackknife off something, because we both know where this conversation’s heading and we both know that in the end, neither of us will be particularly happy with the outcome, but we’ll both have to deal with it.
I ask, Why?
“We’re too different,” you say, blinking away tears from those really beautiful blue eyes that shine brightly in the dim alabaster light of the Montana moon and shine even brighter in the moon’s morning counterpart. You, of course, know I won’t buy this, and I think we both can feel the tension start to solidify around us both: it’s like a heartbreaking blend of fear, anxiety, and anger wrapped up into a Jell-O like substance, keeping us trapped inside while the rest of the world moves on.
Not living. Just existing. See also: my life without you.
This guy isn’t even that great, I mutter, trying to blink away my own tears; I’m not as adept at it as you are, because I can feel my cheekbones start to dampen slightly, one by one. If we didn’t know any better, we’d swear it was raining, but that would only bring the cliché of this final farewell to a new height, like a baby bird finally attempting its first solo flight and succeeding. Like a kid, pedaling faster and faster without his training wheels.
Learning how to live again. See also: my life after this meeting.
“But he understands.”
Oh, of course he understands. Because I’m a poet and a musician and I’m everything that the supportive, loving best friend to the girl next door and he's the beach rat with the surfing sponsorship and the cottage on the lake. That’s how it always works out in movies, you say. And you’d really like me to be your co-star. Well, get this, sweetheart: I’m no Brad Pitt. I’m no Ian Somerhalder or Taylor Lautner or any other typical guy who gets punted to the side for the newest, best thing. If you want to direct this little flick, go ahead. But don’t expect me to be a screenwriter. Don’t expect me to be the kind of guy who will support you through anything and everything, because I’m not in a movie. I’m not that kind of guy. I’m not sweet enough, not caring enough, not perfect enough to help you move on after the way you’ve treated me over the last four and a half months.
You’re a cheater, I say. And that’s all you’ll ever be to me. At this moment, I feel like a serial killer, professing his innocence as he awaits the prick of the needle. See also: lying to myself and everyone around.
You open your mouth to retort, but at that moment there’s a flash of green, and I look up automatically to see if there’s a leaf somewhere taking a jackknife, but no. It’s just Mr. Bieber, still all fresh and hipster-looking with his Starbucks uniform as he walks towards his late-model Honda Civic and asks, Hey.
Do you need a lift?
And I know you’re probably looking back at me, looking to see if I’m going to take this opportunity to fight for you, but at this point, I’m already halfway through the driver’s door of my Camaro. And then I’m gone, leaving you to your false little relationship and the inevitably bitter end you’ll be stuck with because of it.
A lie for the liar. See also: poetic.
The Final Path
He held his breath for the long moment, eyes closed, muscles clenched. He was used to it by now—the lurch and the airless, dizzying blur of colors, finally resolving into black, gray, smoldering red. He staggered as his feet met the scorched dust, and his tired eyes snapped open again.
The sight of the blasted plain that greeted him was nothing new. He had seen it a hundred times before, and always he felt the same thing—the same sadness, the same grief. Standing upon the black expanse of rocky ground that stretched into the harsh red of the horizon, the feeling was no different. He had failed. Again.
He had no more tears. No more would he weep for what was lost. It was over, and he had not been able to stop it. No matter how hard he tried, it was always the same. The same surge of hope as he sped across the years, away from those dreadful moments upon which all this grief was founded, the breathless rush and his heart pounding with anticipation.
And then the sudden stop and the lifeless, dead world laid out before him once more. Always the same. But now it was done.
Once, he had thought he was called to this. Once, he had believed that it was a gift—that he of all others had been chosen, granted this mighty power. He had travelled far—farther than any other before him. He had seen all that he needed to accomplish his task, the task that he believed was set before him.
It was a daunting thing, to undo all that had led up to those final, terrible moments. A weaker man would have quailed and fled. A weaker man would have forsaken his duty, fled away down the corridors of time and found some haven, some moment of peace, and died there.
But he was not a weaker man. He had done all that he could—of course he had. He had the power, and he had used that power to its fullest extent. Not a moment had gone unwasted or unexamined. Nothing had escaped his sight. He had sifted through the vaults of history, second by second, decade by decade, century after century of choices and decisions.
He had known more people than he could count. He had walked the dirty alleyways of crumbling metropolises and trudged the country roads and spoken with the vagrant in his rags and the king upon his glittering throne, and he had searched out the subtle threads that led, relentless and inexorable, to the final moments, when the lives of all he knew and had known were decided…
And here, here at the end, he knew that he did not have the power to stop it. He could not change what had come to be—he could not sow life into that blackened earth, nor breathe clean air into the smoke-filled winds that shrouded the world in darkness.
No, there was only one thing to be done now. One thing, and throughout the unending years it had been the thing he had pushed aside. The one thing he had evaded. Amidst his all-consuming passion to avert the cataclysm that ended this world, it was the one path that he had refused to walk.
He remembered what she had told him, what she had whispered to him before he had left for the first time. He would never forget those words. They had been a comfort to him in the lonely hours. They had given him strength to go on, when devastation was his only reward. When only the stench of burning greeted him at the end of the journey, and he knew that she was nothing more than dust.
She had told him to do what no one else could. And he had tried to do it—he had tried for her—for her and for every heart that still beat down the long line of history that preceded this terrible moment.
But now…now he wondered if he had misunderstood. Here at the end, perhaps he had not done what no one else could. He had the power—the power to change everything, everything except the one thing that mattered the most. Now one path remained. The final path.
He had not looked at himself for a long time. All his attention had been elsewhere, absorbed in his task, and there was no mirror here for him to look at. No pool of water for him to see his reflection. Even so, he knew he was old. His hair was white, and his body was frail. He trembled and choked as he breathed the fumes that swirled around him.
Yes, he was old. He could travel no more upon the avenues of space and time. All this power, and even he could not escape the one Finality that waits for every man, no matter how fervently he might resist.
It was the only choice now—he could not lie to himself anymore. It loomed before him, irresistible, and there was nothing now for him to do but hope that somehow, someway, things could be made right. Perhaps, in the end, he was the problem. So be it.
He seated himself upon the hard earth and breathed deep and remembered a time when things were as they should have been. And she was beside him.
The air was silent, and the black plain stretched on as before…but beneath the suffocating smoke and the harsh, red light, almost lost amidst the sea of sterile dust…
…a glimpse of green.